University of California pressured to cease TMT funding

  • An artist’s rendering of TMT against a backdrop of other Maunakea telescopes.

A group of students and faculty at the University of California are calling on the university to divest from its financial involvement in the Thirty Meter Telescope project after obtaining documents that allege the university has concealed the extent of that involvement.

The University of California is one of six partners in the TMT project, alongside Caltech and government agencies of Canada, Japan, India and China.

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As a partner, UC is expected to contribute financially to the construction of TMT. UC’s then-vice president reportedly made a commitment in 2014 to contribute $175 million to the project, $125 million of which was a gift from the California-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, with the remainder raised via “private fundraising.”

However, a document obtained by an anonymous student via a public records request appears to demonstrate that UC has contributed $68 million toward the project since 2016, including $30 million from its “own funds.” Most recently, UC contributed $10 million to the project in February, half of which was from its own funds.

“This also happened one month before 80 UC graduate students had been fired for striking and organizing for a living wage that the university doesn’t provide, under the guise that they aren’t able to afford that money, when, obviously, this report shows that they do,” said UC Riverside graduate student Terrill James Kaneali‘i Williams.

Based on the report, it appears that UC’s financial contributions to TMT’s construction are taken, in part, from student fees — a possibility that sits poorly with a growing number of students and faculty opposed to the project based on its proposed location on lands sacred to some Native Hawaiians.

“We as students of the UC and community members have joined this struggle, as we believe that land sovereignty is a fundamental right to indigenous peoples, as well as wanting to pave a new way for ethical science and clean investment,” said UC Berkeley student Dante Gonzales. “Given that the University of California just divested from fossil fuels, a multi-hundred-million-dollar investment, we know this is possible.”

Gonzales went on to say that UC’s involvement in the project violates the human rights of indigenous people, in direct violation of the university’s code of ethics, as well as several statutes of the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A petition urging UC to divest from the TMT project has been signed by 1,048 undergraduate students, 70 graduate students, 119 alumni and 266 UC staff and faculty, while an online petition has reached nearly 400,000 signatures, Gonzales said.

UC spokesperson Stett Holbrook did not respond directly to the students’ criticism of the project, merely saying “UC feels it is important to support the scientific mission of TMT to peer deep into space for answers to fundamental questions about the universe,” and adding that the university is “deeply committed to respecting the culture, heritage and environment of Maunakea, to being the best possible stewards of the mountain, and we appreciate the many voices and issues raised.”

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TMT Vice President Gordon Squires issued a brief statement to the Tribune-Herald, affirming that the project’s “international partnership of universities and governmental research institutions remains dedicated to building the most advanced optical telescope to continue humanity’s exploration of the universe. We have great respect for the Hawaiian culture and continue to look for a peaceful way forward.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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